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Could your hip replacement help a charity when you die?

titanium hip joints

Photo: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

They say you can’t take it with you when you’re gone – but if you have an artificial hip or knee, it could benefit a charity when you die. Every year, a remarkable post-mortem recycling scheme raises hundreds of thousands of pounds for good causes, with the blessing of bereaved families.

More than half of the crematoria in the UK now take part in a green funeral initiative which recovers the metal replacement joints, pins and implants left after someone is cremated. Made from premium ores such as titanium, they will eventually be smelted into metals that can be repurposed into new manufactured goods including surgical implants.

“Metals are normally either from the coffin construction, things like small screws, staples, or from orthopaedic implants such as hip joints, knees joints, metal pins and dental plates,” explains Julie Dunk, deputy chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM), which is behind the scheme.

“Those that can be reused are smelted down and then used in a variety of industries. They are collected by a Dutch company called OrthoMetals, which has been recycling metals from cremation for many years in Europe.”

A cheque presentation to the North Devon HospiceJulie Dunk, far right, at a metals recycling cheque presentation at the North Devon Hospice

“The consent of families has been vital”

Since it began in 2005, the renewables scheme has raised £4.3 million for charities that are nominated by each participating crematorium. Bereaved families often play a role in cheque presentations, expressing gladness about their loved one’s legacy.

“The consent of families has been vital to the operation of the scheme,” emphasises Julie. So far, an estimated 350,000 kilogrammes of metal have been recovered from UK crematoria since the recycling scheme began. Of the UK’s 300 crematoria, 168 now take part.

“If a crematorium is not part of any recycling scheme they are probably burying the metals in their grounds – the default method of disposal prior to the introduction of the scheme,” says Julie.

“Crematoria who take part have a section on their forms that explains the recycling process, while some hold open days to raise awareness. The funeral director or arranger should also explain the scheme to the family when they are making funeral arrangements.”

Before a cremation funeral, families are advised to remove their loved one’s wedding ring or other precious metal jewellery, if it’s something they wish to keep.

What happens to gold fillings and jewellery that’s cremated?

“Although very small amounts of precious metals may be recovered from any jewellery worn, or from gold fillings in teeth, the cremation process means that these are not generally recognisable,” explains Julie.

“The gold and silver melts and reforms into small black blobs. Some of the recovered metal, however, is very high grade surgical quality and may be reused in a medical environment.”

Families who do not consent to recycling can collect the metal remains when they call for their loved one’s ashes and make their own final arrangements accordingly. But it’s unusual for this to happen – and Julie believes this renewable option may be a positive for many people making funeral arrangements. “I believe most families are happy to think they are helping,” she says.

“There are an increasing number of green options for funerals now, and some families place great importance on these.”

A coffin with a floral tribute

OrthoMetals collects metals from 1,250 crematoria in over 20 countries on four continents.

“It’s having a hugely positive environmental impact on a worldwide scale,” says Julie.

“It’s helping protect the environment by reducing the need for mining new metal ores by reusing metals. It can also bring comfort to bereaved people, who may feel that it fits with environmental aspirations of their loved one.”

Recycling pacemakers

Indeed, despite occasional media furores over green funeral industry initiatives – such as Redditch Borough Council’s move in 2013 to heat the local swimming pool with renewable energy sourced from the local crematorium – the British public has been apparently sanguine and pragmatic. The Midlands scheme, saving the authority an estimated annual £14,500 on energy bills, has been deemed a success.

“The fact is that most people felt this was perfectly acceptable, despite the best efforts of the press to say otherwise,” says Julie.

“It’s possible that this may even have swayed some families to use Redditch, rather than another local crematorium.”

This year, the ICCM is embarking upon its latest green funeral initiative, with plans to include pacemakers in its recycling scheme. Pacemakers are removed at funeral homes or in hospital mortuaries prior to cremation funerals, as they can explode in the intense heat. The pacemakers will also be recycled in the Netherlands by OrthoMetals.

Local hospices and bereavement support organisations, as well as national charities researching and supporting people through terminal illnesses charities have been supported by the ICCM recycling scheme, which is anticipated to raise an estimated £800,000 in 2018.

A full list of the charities that bereaved families and the ICCM have supported since the crematorium metals recycling scheme began, can be found on the organisation’s website.

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